Ronald Reagan is commonly identified as a conservative. Certainly the "New Right" and the Moral Majority, which are as conservative as one can get in American politics without shame and embarrassment, claim him as their politician. Yet even aside from that, it's pretty much understood that Ronald Reagan is of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, as against Gerald Ford of the center and Jacob Javits, who leans toward the left and could easily trade places with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Nixon-Democrat from New York State.
In his July 1975 Reason interview, Mr. Reagan said, "If you analyze it, I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism." He added in clarification that "the basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom, and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is." Mr. Reagan here gave voice to an impression shared by many Americans throughout the past decade or so, when libertarian political ideas have begun to attain a measure of visibility. The impression has a degree of validity, of course.
American, as distinct from European, conservatism aims at retaining the ideals associated with the American Revolution. Some debate still lingers on about just what are the essential ideals of that major political event, and this is no negligible matter. For instance, neo-conservative Irving Kristol has maintained, with many others, that the revolution was no radical break with the past and should not be viewed as an expression of Thomas Paine's, George Mason's, and Thomas Jefferson's radicalism. Instead, they hold that Madison and Hamilton express the true spirit of the American Revolution. But others, like Bernard Bailyn, Murray Rothbard, and Harry V. Jaffa deny this, squarely tying the revolution to the radical libertarianism of Paine and the authors of Cato's Letters.
Professor Jaffa of Claremont Men's College has for some years engaged in a profound debate with Professor M.E. Bradford of the University of Dallas (e.g., in the pages of Modern Age) on the precise meaning of the Declaration of Independence. While Jaffa regards it as quite Aristotelian, rationalistic, and supportive of the essential (initial) equality of human beings—just as Lincoln interpreted it when he freed the slaves—Bradford considers the Declaration an expression of the traditionalism of English society, which considered only Englishmen worthy of citizenship and protection under the law.
Both in ordinary perception and in scholarship, then, conservatism is linked to two divergent conceptions of the American political experience. In either case, however, a strong and historically unique individualistic element is recognized. American conservatives tend to be loyal enough to the letter of the founding American documents not to scoff at individualism and liberty. As Frank S. Meyer, the friend of both William F. Buckley and Murray N. Rothbard, wrote in his 1962 In Defense of Freedom: "At the source to which American conservatism inevitably returns—The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the debates at the time of its adoption—this simultaneous belief in objectively existing moral value and in the freedom of the individual person was promulgated in uncompromising terms."
While Meyer fairly captures mainstream conservative sentiment—not without some strain, however, if we count the New Right and Moral Majority in this group—there is evidence that he was too optimistic on the side of liberty. Of this, Mr. Reagan gave clear indication in his Reason interview. He didn't think that freedom of the individual can be embraced "in uncompromising terms." As he put it, "There's bound to be a grey area, an area in there in which you ask is this government protecting us from ourselves or is this government protecting us from each other." Among the grey areas Mr. Reagan placed in the latter category: fire protection, railway safety regulations, food and drug regulation regarding safety, public education, gambling and prostitution and similar victimless crimes, and conscription in time of war. (The one form of government intervention Mr. Reagan opposed, although many other conservatives support it, is censorship, even when pornography is involved.)
Obviously, this is hardly a wholehearted "belief…in the freedom of the individual person"—certainly not in uncompromising terms. But are there perhaps good reasons for making some of these compromises? That is what many conservatives maintain in their standard objections to libertarianism, ever since the emergence of a serious libertarian movement in the United States.
Not that conservatism isn't riddled with theoretical problems we could dwell on. For one, it really isn't a point of view but rather an attitude or even taste. It is a predisposition to accept custom or habit or ritual or folk tale rather than reasoned conclusions, science, invention, and imagination. There is no need to recount here the liabilities of this predisposition. More fundamental are the problems that beset the kind of objections conservatives lodge against advocates of a principled position in favor of a free society. Such objections are useful to consider at times in their very best light. Despite its shortcomings, conservatism might have some useful criticisms to offer.
First, libertarians are accused of moral relativism, the view that no general precepts of right and wrong conduct, no general standards of morality, apply to human beings; that moral values are relative to the individual or his or her group. And some libertarians do fit this characterization—just as some conservatives degenerate into fascism from their blind devotion to custom and tradition. But libertarianism is in no way logically or philosophically wedded to moral relativism. It couldn't be, what with its uncompromising stand requiring that all persons respect the principle of individual responsibility and that no one, including government, may violate human dignity by means of coercion or its threat. Even in the area of personal ethics, many libertarians adhere to a firm, objectivist moral code. Of course, libertarianism does not as such specify the content of much of personal morality. But this is a far cry from endorsing relativism.
Second, conservatives claim that human reason is inadequate to the task of identifying right and wrong, so we need to rely on the force of tradition, embedded in law, even if it is coercive, to steer us right. But tradition did not emerge ex nihilo. Human reason gave rise to the traditions we now live with. So, human reason can just as readily criticize those traditions, based on what is new and better. Moreover, this conservative criticism rests on a picture of reason that focuses on the kind of deliberative reasoning employed in science, technology, and engineering, whereas the more prevalent type of reasoning exhibited by people as they go about their day-to-day affairs is ignored by conservatives. Libertarians regard that kind of reasoning, along with the more theoretical sort, as productive of wisdom, even against tradition, in all realms of human life.
As to the charge that the emulation of human reason detracts from the significance of religious faith, thus robbing humanity of higher dignity and opening the door to mechanistic humanism and even totalitarian manipulation—this too is misconceived. Whether God or nature gave human beings their reason is important, but not in the political context. From the point of view of libertarianism, what is crucial is that this is the tool with which political issues need to be confronted and problems solved. So the conservative may well be acting in defiance of God in rejecting or downplaying the instrument with which alone human beings can hope to solve their problems.
Third, conservatives believe libertarians are fostering libertinism by stressing only the value of liberty. But this ignores the enormous role libertarianism leaves to family, fraternity, professional associations, neighborhoods, churches, and other aspects and parts of the community when it comes to fostering the moral climate. Libertarianism encourages the development of these roles by recognizing that the State is not only illicit but incompetent and ultimately impotent in matters of moral leadership outside of its proper domain, the maintenance of justice.
Fourth, conservatives join liberals in distrusting private individuals and groups when it comes to dealing with extreme cases, emergencies, disasters—for example, the plight of the very poor, the retarded and crippled, and those hit by some natural calamity. Here too is a faith in bureaucracies that is unwarranted and wholly destructive of yielding genuine, reliable social approaches to coping with human life. The libertarian view is that although human action can go wrong, bureaucratic human action is more likely to go wrong in handling tasks outside government's proper function. Pretending that governments can institute successful policies (we all admit some accidental benefits from illicit government action) suppresses the real source of problem solving—in preserving and fostering health, welfare, education, hygiene, morality, and the rest of what governments butt into, even as they, along with Mr. Reagan, profess a commitment to individual liberty. Private initiative, although never to be promoted as a certain, utopian approach, is immensely potent. It is hopelessly thwarted, however, when systematically usurped and preempted by the illusion of State initiative.
Mr. Reagan should reconsider the grey areas he has accepted as warranting compromise of the principle of individual liberty. He should take to heart his very own words that "libertarianism and conservatism are traveling the same path," and he should make this into a policy, not just a bland wish. The world and this country today need far more human liberty than anything else conservatives have to offer.
Tibor Machan is a senior editor of REASON. On leave from the Philosophy Department at SUNY College, Fredonia, he teaches courses in the Economics Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara.